Cinoc the Word-Killer

Here is the lexicographer’s equivalent to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books:

Cinoc, who was then about fifty, pursued a curious profession. As he said himself, he was a “word-killer”: he worked at keeping Larousse dictionaries up to date. But whilst other compilers sought out new words and meaning, his job was to make room for them by eliminating all the words and meanings that had fallen into disuse.

When he retired in nineteen sixty-five, after fifty-three years of scrupulous service, he had disposed of hundreds and thousands of tools, techniques, customs, beliefs, sayings, dishes, games, nicknames, weights and measures; he had wiped dozens of islands, hundreds of cities and rivers, and thousands of townships off the map; he had returned to taxonomic anonymity hundreds of varieties of cattle, species of birds, insects, and snakes, rather special sorts of fish, kinds of crustaceans, slightly dissimilar plants and particular breeds of vegetables and fruit; and cohorts of geographers, missionaries, entomologists, Church Fathers, men of letters, generals, Gods & Demons had be swept by his hand into eternal obscurity.

Who would know ever again what a vigigraphe was, “a type of telegraph consisting of watchtowers communicating with each other”? And who could henceforth imagine there had existed for perhaps many generations a “block of wood on the end of a stick for flattening watercress in flooded ditches” and that the block had been called a schuèle (shü-ell)?…

Cinoc began to dally on the banks of the Seine, rummaging through the open-air bookstalls, leafing through penny dreadfuls, out-of-date essays, obsolete traveller’s guides, old textbooks on physiology, mechanics, or moral instruction, or superseded maps in which Italy still figured as a multicoloured patchwork of little kingdoms. Later on he went to borrow books from the municipal library of the XVIIth arrondissement, in Rue Jacques-Binjen, having them bring down from the attic dusty old folios, ancient users’ manuals, volumes from the Library of Miracles, and old dictionaries: Lachâtre, Vicarius, Bescherelle aîné, Larrive, Fleury, the Dictionary of Conversation compiled by a Society of Men and Letters, Graves and d’Esbigné, Bouillet, Onions, Dezobry, and Bachelet. Finally, when he had exhausted the resources of his local library, he grew bolder and enrolled at Sainte-Geneviève, where he started to read the authors whose names he saw as he went in, carved on the stone façade.

He read Aristotle, Pliny, Aldrovandy, Sir Thomas Browne, Gesner, Ray, Linnaeus, Brisson, Cuvier, Bonneterre, Owen, Scoresby, Bennett, Aronnax, Omstead, Pierre-Joseph Macquart, Sterne, Eugénie Guérin, Gastripheres, Phutatorius, Somnolentius, Triptolemy, Argalastes, Kysarchius, Egnatius, Sigonius, Bossius, Ticinenses, Baysius, Bodoeus, Salmasius, Lipsius, Lazius, Isaac Casaubon, Joseph Scaliger, and even the De re vestiaria veterum by Rubenius (1655, quarto), which gave him a full & satisfactory account of the Toga, or loose gown, the Chlamys, the Ephod, the Tunica or jacket, the Synthesis, the Paenula, the Lacema with its Cucullus, the Paladamentum, and Praetexta, the Sagum or soldier’s jerkin, and the Trabea: of which, according to the Suetonius, there were three kinds.

Cinoc read slowly and copied down rare words; gradually his plan began to take shape, and he decided to compile a great dictionary of forgotten words, not in order to perpetuate the memory of the Akka, a black-skinned pygmy people of Central Africa, or of Jean Gigoux, a historical painter, or of Henri Romagnesi, a composer of romances, 1781–1851, nor to prolong the life of the scolecobrot, a tetramerous coleopter of the longicorn family, Cerambycid branch, but so as to rescue simple words which still appealed to him. In ten years he gathered more than eight thousand of them, which contain, obscurely, the trace of a story it has now become almost impossible to hand on…

—Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual

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6 comments on “Cinoc the Word-Killer

  1. George Perec’s ‘A User’s Manual’ is a fantastic book. The detail in its construction is immense. Have you read it, or just citing from it ?

    Browne, Pliny and Aristotle are perhaps the only authors who are ever read these days.

    Scaliger, Aldrovandi and Gesner were favourite reads of Browne and are frequently cited in his encyclopaedic endeavour ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’

    • Sylvia says:

      I’m just citing from it. The bit about Cinoc was mentioned in “Salamander” and I was moved to look it up. It does look like a fascinating novel (if it is a novel!) and I think I’d like to read it some time. I hope you will forgive me but I hadn’t heard of Browne before!

  2. Stefanie says:

    I’ve had this book unread on my shelf for years. I really do have to get around to reading it!

  3. AndrewL says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this book as well.

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